Althea Gibson was a natural athlete who attempted many sports without any instruction and yet excelled. Born the daughter of a South Carolina sharecropper -- and a generation behind legendary Babe Zaharias -- Gibson became one of the most gifted African-American woman athletes in history.
From a teenage table tennis sensation, she went on to shatter the color barrier of lawn tennis. In 1957, she captured the singles titles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. It also was the same year that Zaharias died of cancer.
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Gibson became the first African-American to be named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. She won both Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles again in 1958. Like Zaharias, Gibson endured controversy and did not profit as an amateur, thus making the transition to golf.
She began playing golf at age 33, and could drive a ball more than 200 yards. PGA Professional Jerry Volpe of Englewood (New Jersey) Country Club, a coach of several celebrities and a trick shot artist, was impressed by Gibson’s strength and hand-eye coordination. Volpe pressed her to devote more time to the game. Gibson turned professional in 1963, and earned her LPGA Tour card a year later.
“Althea opened the door in tennis for Arthur Ashe,” said PGA/LPGA Professional Renee Powell of East Canton, Ohio, who followed Gibson to the LPGA Tour in 1967. “She opened the door for me when it came to traveling around the country to play golf in places that had never welcomed a black person before.”
Gibson began spending long days at public golf courses, practicing from morning until dark. Volpe led the campaign to her receiving an honorary membership as the only African American member of Englewood Country Club. Gibson made her professional debut at Kenwood Country Club in Cincinnati.
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As Gibson worked to improve her game, she received help from legendary golf professionals, including Mickey Wright, Julius Boros, Ted Rhodes, Marlene Hagge and Jimmy DeVoe, among others. Gibson became disheartened and angered by treatment she received on the road. Some clubs wouldn’t permit her to use their clubhouse facilities, while several hotels turned her away.
“Althea could not even use the restroom at golf clubs,” Powell said.
LPGA Tournament Director Lenny Wirtz rose to Gibson’s defense. In one city, the host club refused to let Gibson play, so Wirtz withdrew the tournament and moved it to a public course.
“Living in the ’60s was such a tumultuous time,” Powell said. “First, Althea endured abuse in the world of tennis and then had to see it all again when she became a professional golfer.
“But she was not shy at all, and was well loved by those she came in contact. She once told me that she was on her own since she was 14 years old. Golf was the avenue where she could try to make a living.”
Gibson also was a talented singer, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show; played the saxophone and had a role in the 1959 motion picture, “The Horse Soldiers,” featuring John Wayne.
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In 1965, Gibson married William Darben, a friend of many years. She could now begin drive the ball more than 250 yards. In the 1970 Len Immke Buick Open, she posted rounds of 71-68-77 and moved into a playoff with Mills and Sandra Haynie.
Haynie bogeyed the first hole and went to the sidelines. Mills outlasted Gibson with a par on the second extra hole. Gibson earned $2,032.50, which was the high point of her golf career. She played in 171 LPGA events and eventually drifted off the Tour.
In 1975, the State of New Jersey appointed Gibson its Commissioner of Athletics, where she remained for 10 years. Her marriage to Darben ended in 1976. In 1983, Gibson married Sydney Llewellyn, a tennis coach from her youth, but they divorced in 1988.
In 1992, at age 65, Gibson suffered two cerebral aneurisms, which were followed by a stroke. She died on Sept. 28, 2003 in East Orange, N.J., at age 76.
At a memorial service, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins said, “A lot of folks stood on her shoulders. I’m not just talking about black folks, but many others who were inspired by what she achieved.”
In her 1958 autobiography, “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody,” Gibson downplayed her pioneering role.
“I have never regarded myself as a crusader,” she wrote. “I don’t consciously beat the drums for any cause, not even the Negro in the United States."
Althea Neale Gibson, an enduring example of charm, grace and integrity, will forever be measured by what she achieved, a legacy of pursuing what was once improbable.